Weizenbaum and Artificial Intelligence.

March 15, 2008

In the Wall Street Journal of all places, I read that Joseph Weizenbaum had died. He created the ELIZA computer program that simulates human interaction. While not a sophisticated program, it is always mentioned (and always will be mentioned) in discussions of artificial intelligence and Turing tests. With his simple program, Weizenbaum immortalized himself as an AI pioneer.

Even though artificial intelligence has its critics, it is already ubiquitous. Just today, I called UPS and spoke at length with a computer. It used voice recognition technology quite effectively to identify my package number. Even now, I am writing this with NaturallySpeaking 9.5. This voice recognition program is inherently based on artificial intelligence algorithms.

But artificial intelligence is not voice recognition alone. AI “perceives its environment and takes actions which maximize its chances of success.” Weizenbaum, clearly a gifted man, gave up computer programming and the field of artificial intelligence altogether later in life. In a way, he was better off than two recent leading authorities in the field. However, based on what I’ve read about him and his work, he really felt that humans shouldn’t rely on machines for decision-making. Of course, now, we do that every day. Pilots use AI to fly airplanes. People rely on AI in their cars without even knowing about it. At some point, people will rely on AI to make decisions about their lives. In one’s PDA, one will have a virtual psychiatrist/business planner/personal coach always at one’s fingertips. I suspect that Weizenbaum would not approve of this, but I think it’s better than, say, relying on Astrology for that same advice.

Weizenbaum was particularly put off by the fact that when ELIZA came out, people really took it seriously. Some people really couldn’t distinguish a simple pattern recognizer from a human being. If you have played with ELIZA, you may find this hard to believe. But remember it came out in 1966. No one had much experience with such things back then. No one had much experience with computers at all. This is how far ahead of his time Weizenbaum was.

At the same time, I think his dismay at how stupid people can be was misplaced. Artificial intelligence, in the form of an interactive program designed to pass Turing tests has not progressed much in the last 42 years. That is not to say that artificial intelligence has not progressed much, it has. However people have not built an interactive program designed to mimic humans with much more efficacy than ELIZA does. There have been some recent attempts and perhaps this is now becoming vogue once again.

Instead of worrying about people who can’t distinguish a computer program from a real person, think about how much these people can be helped. Look how many of the videos on YouTube are made by people who cannot see the consequences of their actions. A quick check with one’s personal digital mentor, might prevent the disastrous outcome from the typical “hey y’all watch this” YouTube adventure. Or Weizenbaum, who was clearly smarter than I am, could be right and such AI development could lead to a Terminator-style apocalypse. I suspect, however, no matter the outcome, such AI is inevitable in time.

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One Response to “Weizenbaum and Artificial Intelligence.”


  1. […] author and professor emeritus of computer science at MIT, passed away. I’ve just read it in a posted blog article while looking for AI news in Internet. He’s the author of ELIZA a computer program which […]


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